After hours of working through Quicken and trying to figure out how to make the next month of medical school work, I sat staring at my computer screen–overwhelmed and exhausted. The financial strain of medical school felt crushing.
No matter how hard I tried, the reality was our monthly loan stipend was significantly less than our family of four needed to live. This particular month, we had unexpected car repairs that I didn’t know how we were going to pay for. I finally walked away from the computer, prayed for the ability to find a solution, and went to bed. Around noon the next day, we received a check in the mail for $50–the exact amount we needed to cover our expenses that month–along with a note from a dear family member that said, “We’ve been thinking about you and thought this might help.”
I am grateful for those experiences in medical school that taught me what it is like to be on the receiving end of generosity. It was in those desperate days that I began studying the lives of generous people and committed to becoming more generous myself.
One life has made a particular impression on me.
Of the more than 1,200 billionaires living in the world, Jon Hunstman Sr. is one of only 19 who has given away more than $1 billion.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy has listed Jon and his wife Karen as the second largest American donors. They established the Huntsman Cancer Institute which is now one of America’s leading cancer research centers which he has funded with hundreds of millions of dollars.
But his generosity and commitment to blessing the lives of other people did not begin once he was wealthy.
Jon Huntsman Sr grew up in rural Idaho with an abusive father and never enough money. But his family practiced giving–even with the little they had.
In 1960, while a lieutenant in the US Navy, he would take $50 out of his $320 monthly paycheck and give it to an organization to help veteran families. That was given in addition to the $32 he paid in tithing to his church each month. That’s a total of 25% of his income that he gave away every month–long before he had the fortune to do so.
That foundational value of generosity paved the path for the rest of his life. As his company and success grew, it was natural and easy for him to continue giving away large portions of his money. He has said that he wants to “die broke” by giving away all of his fortune to various charities.
Huntsman has not only given away his fortune, he has set an example for the rest of us in how to be generous. Generosity is not an event, it is a character trait that is developed over time and refined with experience. As I have studied the lives of generous people, I have noticed there are five principles that generous people live by.
Give before you think you have enough to give. Give more than you think you can afford. C.S. Lewis said, “If our charities don’t pinch us, they are not enough.”
Giving during the holidays is wonderful! But is it sufficient? Does thinking of other people once a year have the power to change our hearts and bring us lasting joy? Lasting change comes through consistently doing those things we value. The real test comes in remembering to be generous when there is not a bell-ringer outside every store or giving trees in the lobby of work. Generosity is a way of life, not a one-time deal.
Giving, loving, and serving happens more in spontaneous moments than planned events. While donating $400 million to set up a cancer institute and donating $26 million to education requires forethought and planning, many generous acts do not. In 1992 when Huntsman was on his way to the hospital to receive treatment for prostate cancer, he decided to make three stops on the way. The first was to a homeless shelter where he left a check for a million dollars. The second was a local soup kitchen where he left another check for a million dollars. And the third was to the clinic that found his disease where he left a check for $500,000. Give what you can, where you are, when it is needed. This doesn’t always have to be money either. Sometimes we act as though our time is a more valuable commodity than money. Are we willing to give five minutes to carry an elderly woman’s groceries to her car? Can we allow the car to merge in front of us–even if it means we are 30 seconds later to our meeting than planned?
Build conveniences into your life to allow for spontaneity. One woman I know lives in inner city Nashville where homeless people are frequently asking her for food or money for the bus. She never gives money in those situations, but she always offers to buy them a meal if they are hungry and she always carries extra bus tokens in her pocket and freely gives them when asked.
In order to be spontaneous, we have to be aware. When I was on a study abroad in college, one of the instructors said she had only one piece of advice for our time away – to look up. She explained that so often we look at our feet when we walk and we miss everything there is to see. Now we spend so much of our time looking at a device. Are we checking our email in line at the grocery store that we don’t see the young mother in front of us counting items on the belt and adding it up in her mind–making sure she has enough to pay for it? Do we notice the couple next to us at the restaurant that look like they seldom get to enjoy a night out that we miss the opportunity to pay for their meal? In order to serve others and live generously, we must first be aware of the needs of other people.
In 1973, researchers at Princeton Theological Seminary conducted an experiment with 40 students. The students started in one building where they were asked to fill out a questionnaire. They were then instructed to walk to a separate building where they would be giving a talk on either the subject of jobs or on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The real experiment took place on the way to the second building. Each of the participants had to walk past an actor who was clearly in need of help. There was only one factor that significantly influenced whether the students stopped to help–and it was not the topic of their talk.
Some of the students were told they were ahead of schedule and had a few extra minutes to get to the next building. Other students were told they were right on time and to hurry over for their talk. The third group was told they were late and needed to really hurry. Only 10% of those that were told they were late stopped to help compared to 63% of those in the low hurry condition.
You and I run incredibly busy lives. And that makes most of us feel too busy to help. If you are going to develop a spirit of generosity, we have to slow down and be available.
As you make the commitments to become more generous, your life will be filled with greater abundance, joy, and meaning. As Winston Churchill so wisely taught, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
What is one way you can make a commitment to generous living today?